Things you never knew about…building an adventure playground

08 April 2024

Blenheim Palace is an architectural gem of the English Baroque and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But the undisputed highlight for younger visitors is the Lost Garden Adventure Playground, a mini-world where they can splash, swing and slide through equipment inspired by the Palace and its grounds.

Jemma Crowther, Project Manager at Ridge, shares some secrets and surprises about what makes a fun place to play 

1. How things feel is more important than how they look 

The role for Ridge spanned Architecture, Cost Management, Project Management, Building Services Engineering, and Structural and Civil Engineering – with playground specialist CAP.CO driving how the Lost Garden took shape. “As construction consultants, our job here was to support their vision and turn it into reality, rather than the architects leading the design,” explains Jemma. 

The number one priority was the user experience, which meant taking a counter-intuitive approach to functionality. “For example, CAP.CO wanted the entrance to feel as if you were going down a tunnel, instead of just opening the door and being in the space. They created arches that will be woven with climbing plants, so it’s more about the journey than the destination.” 

2. It needs to be absolutely safe – but seem a little bit dangerous 

The Lost Garden is for children from toddlers to teenagers, as well as the adults accompanying them, so the 1.38-acre site had to cater for a wide range of abilities and experiences. Children can hop, skip and splash over stepping stones, bridges, log flumes and jets in the water play area, while the older and braver can explore the Grand Bridge and Embankment, clambering across tree-top walkways, rope bridges and climbing nets, through tunnels and tube slides, and flying along ziplines. 

Health and safety is an important part of every construction project, but on an adventure playground, every detail is subject to an even more stringent level of scrutiny. Throughout the project, our team had to coordinate inspections of the play equipment and the landscaping with RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. The key is to conceal all this from the younger visitors: a good playground has to have a fear factor. 

“If it feels too safe, it takes away that element of fun, especially for the older children. So it was about getting that balance right, where it’s completely safe but still feels exciting and challenging.”

3. On a small-scale project, even a little change can have a big impact 

For Jemma, the biggest project management challenge on the Lost Garden was coordinating the many elements and the different teams responsible for creating them. “If the playground specialist moved something even a couple of inches, it could completely alter the way the landscaping had to work, which then changes the structural elements, which changes the civil elements. Small changes had a large rippling effect, so we had to make sure everyone was always working to the current design, and keeping to programme.” 

On site, this meant teams of full-size adults working around one another to create a Lilliputian landscape designed on a miniature scale. “The contractor’s site manager did a great job too – some days there would be four or five teams in a very small area.” 

4. Certain elements defy prediction 

The most difficult element to construct was the rill water feature, which flows like a channel through the centre of the site. It was important that the playground feels authentic rather than like a manufactured environment, so the rill is made from large pieces of natural stone, which were cut and arranged on site. “The water feature specialist could only give an indicative design before they got to site because they couldn’t predict exactly where the water would flow,” says Jemma. “It took a lot of testing and coordination to get the exact slope required”. 

Of course, none of this is apparent in the Lost Garden today, where water flows effortlessly through the remodelled landscape. Since completion in Spring 2023, it has become a firm favourite among visitors to Blenheim Palace, and remains one of the highlights of Jemma’s career to date. “You don’t get to project manage a playground very often, or work in the grounds of a palace,” she points out. “Seeing the children using and loving what we’d developed was really special, and people still tell me how much they appreciate it, so it’s continuously rewarding.” 

You can contact Jemma on: jemmacrowther@ridge.co.uk and find out more about our Project Management, Cost Management, Civil and Structural Engineering by following the links.